Brave Submissions on the Social Security Rewrite Bill

Yesterday I heard submissions on the Social Security Rewrite Bill.

The people who presented were amazing. We heard from a range of organisations working with people needing income support, and people who have had to or have to use income support.

There were some very emotional moments and I want to pay tribute to those telling their own stories; firstly for their survival and secondly for summoning up the hope to share that experience and give us the opportunity to create a better system. I will address the specific policy concerns and recommendations in another blog post. There are many technical issues to consider but I want to share some of the experiences that were raised with us, so you too can understand.

The Government talks about work being the best thing for everyone and needing to set up systems that will make sure people don’t take advantage.

Disabled Persons Assembly gave a very powerful submission clearly stating its concern with the narrow focus of the so-called “investment approach” and the concept of work being best as inappropriate and discriminatory. They were very clear that paid work is not always best. They said the phrase “long term welfare dependence” in the context of social security legislation is deeply problematic. It ignores our interdependence on each as members of a society. They noted that social security is a positive concept that depends on everyone in society. To put ‘dependence’ into legislation in this context is pejorative and likely to increase the stigmatisation of people outside of the paid workforce.

One of the submitters with DPA shared her personal story. She told us of spending three years as a job seeker with a medical exemption as her muscular dystrophy meant she was unable to engage in paid work. She realised she should transition to a supported living benefit rather than a job seekers benefit. She was grieving for her job as an HR manager and for her financial independence so coming to the point of recognising she wasn’t in a position to be in paid work was very difficult.

Before she made the appointment she spoke to three different officers about what she needed to bring with her, and then crossed checked that against the information on the website. She turned up to her appointment with all the documentation and was told by her case worker that it was insufficient – that she would need a new medical certificate with different information on it. To get to that point she had had to make trips to her GP in Lower Hutt and a specialist in Wellington.

This was exhausting and painful. The Work and Income offices in her region do not have disability car parks outside and so she had had to walk further than she should have. She then had to wait an hour on inappropriate seats and then the appointment was another hour again on inappropriate seating. She was upset to be told the information she had taken so much effort to provide and get right was not enough and when she expressed this frustration she was told the case manager couldn’t help unless the right information was provided.

When she then, still upset, stood up to leave and put her papers on her walker the case manager started calling for security. It took a long time, three medical certificates, a Work and Income officer calling her GP asking the GP to change her medical certificate, and three formal complaints before she finally managed to get the supported living allowance. She believes this experience is not the fault of the staff but rather the culture shaped by the investment approach and the belief that work is always best.

Another woman presented her submission, clearly in distress, shaking, and unable to look at us. She managed to ground herself enough to share some poems and songs she wrote while fighting suicidality. She told us she was once studying law and had a business but was raped and didn’t get the help she needed from ACC. She is now struggling to stay alive and is destitute getting $400 per week and having to pay $250 in rent. She’s had flatmates before but it has ended tragically. She clearly spends a lot of time managing herself to stay alive.

She told us about a time she felt she’d managed to get to a point where she was (relatively) okay only to call up her case manager and be told her benefit had been cut because she hadn’t supplied an updated medical certificate. She has a coping mechanism of not opening mail. This won’t be fixed by sanctions. When people are unwell, experiencing post-traumatic stress as an example, they often have to do all sorts of things to cope. Coping strategies often don’t fit in nice tidy flow charts of institutional expectations. While she said she has a great case manager clearly the system is not providing the security she needs.

We also heard further evidence of the terrible problems arising from how ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’ is being interpreted – against court guidance. One of several examples was of a man who went into Work and Income to get a food parcel because he didn’t have enough to cover his bills and food. He told them how he didn’t have enough to buy food so had been eating at his girlfriend’s house. They interpreted this as a relationship in the nature of marriage.

We heard of another woman on Supported Living who never had enough to cover all her basics – particularly hair and body care, who wouldn’t have enough for petrol and food for herself. So if the children had an event on she needed to drive to she would go without food.

We heard from a woman for whom slippers, heating and new knickers are a luxury, a woman who regularly has to wait until benefit day to pay for her prescriptions, and a woman who couldn’t afford to go out for dinner after her daughter’s graduation.

We were told how life is such a constant struggle for her it doesn’t allow her to get well enough to work. We were told that benefits are just too low for people to feel good about being alive.

This is just a small collection of the stories we heard. It’s incredibly brave to tell these stories when the rhetoric against beneficiaries is so strong.

The system needs a radical overall.